The varieties of selflessness

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Many authors argue that conscious experience involves a sense of self or self-consciousness. According to the strongest version of this claim, there can be no selfless states of consciousness, namely states of consciousness that lack self-consciousness altogether. Disagreements about this claim are likely to remain merely verbal as long as the target notion of self-consciousness is not adequately specified. After distinguishing six notions of self-consciousness commonly discussed in the literature, I argue that none of the corresponding features is necessary for consciousness, because there are states of consciousness in which each of them is plausibly missing. Such states can be said to be at least partially selfless, since they lack at least one of the ways in which one could be self-conscious. Furthermore, I argue that there is also preliminary empirical evidence that some states of consciousness lack all of these six putative forms of self-consciousness. Such states might be totally selfless, insofar as they lack all the ways in which one could be self-conscious. I conclude by addressing four objections to the possibility and reportability of totally selfless states of consciousness.
Original languageEnglish
Article number8
Pages (from-to)1-41
Number of pages41
JournalPhilosophy and the Mind Sciences
Issue numberI
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2020. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • dreamless sleep
  • drug-induced states
  • global states of consciousness
  • meditation
  • psychopathology
  • self-consciousness
  • selflessness


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